Blogs

Eat What You Want, But Eat Fresh

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 12:46 PM EST

This is interesting. Yesterday I wrote a post suggesting that we should all try to eat more fresh food and less processed food, but that otherwise it didn't matter much what kind of diet you followed. (Within reason, of course.) This was based solely on my intermittent reading of food research over the years, not on a specific rigorous study. Today, however, fellow MoJoer Tom Philpott tells me that there is indeed a rigorous study that backs this up:

Over the past decade, there has been a bounty of research on the ill effects of highly processed food. And when Yale medical researchers David Katz and Samuel Meller surveyed the scientific dietary literature for a paper in 2013, they found that a "diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention."

Interestingly, Katz and Meller found that as long as you stick to the "minimally processed" bit, it doesn't much matter which diet you follow: low-fat, vegetarian, and Mediterranean have all shown good results. Even the meat-centered "paleo" approach does okay. The authors conclude the "aggregation of evidence" supports meat eating, as long as the "animal foods are themselves the products, directly or ultimately, of pure plant foods—the composition of animal flesh and milk is as much influenced by diet as we are." That's likely because cows fed on grass deliver meat and milk with a healthier fat profile than their industrially raised peers.

Now, Tom is optimistic that processed food is losing its allure as Americans migrate more and more to fresh foods. I can't say that I share this optimism, but I hope he's right. There's nothing wrong with a potato chip or a can of soup here and there (everything in moderation!), but a steady diet of processed food really is something worth avoiding.

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SIM Card Manufacturer Says Its Encryption Keys Are Safe From NSA Hacking

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 12:19 PM EST

I'm passing this along without comment since I don't have anything substantive to add. I just wanted to keep everyone up to date on the Intercept story about the NSA stealing cell phone encryption data stored on SIM chips:

Security-chip maker Gemalto NV said Wednesday that American and British intelligence services could be responsible for a “particularly sophisticated intrusion” of its networks several years ago, but denied that the alleged hack could have widely compromised encryption it builds into chips used in billions of cellphones world-wide.

....Company executives also asserted that the interceptions wouldn’t have compromised the security of its newer SIM cards for 3G and 4G cellular networks, only older 2G networks. The reason: Gemalto says the new technology no longer require it to send telecom companies the keys to decrypt individuals’ communications—so they couldn’t have been intercepted.

Hmmm. On the one hand, many of the Snowden documents are indeed fairly old, dating back to 2010 or 2011. So they could be out of date. On the other hand, the NSA didn't necessarily have to "intercept" anything here. A sufficiently sophisticated hack could presumably have given them direct access to the Gemalto database that contains the encryption keys. And needless to say, Gemalto has a vested interest in assuring everyone that their current products are safe.

So....who knows what really happened here. We'll likely hear more about it as Gemalto's internal investigation continues.

DHS Funding Fight Is Going Down to the Wire

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 11:31 AM EST

We're getting down to the wire in the funding fight over the Department of Homeland Security: DHS will shut down this weekend if funding isn't approved by Friday. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell wants to simply hold two separate votes: one to fund DHS and another to repeal President Obama's recent immigration actions. But tea partiers in the House are adamantly opposed to that: they want to keep the two things together in one bill, which they hope will force Democrats to cave in and kill the immigration plan. In reality, it will only produce deadlock in the Senate and a shutdown of DHS that Republicans will be blamed for. So what's John Boehner to do? Greg Sargent comments:

We’ve seen this particular thriller a number of times already. Here’s how it always goes: We are told there’s no way Boehner would ever dare move must-pass legislation with a lot of Democrats. He’s stuck! Then pressure builds and builds, and Boehner does end up passing something with a lot of Democrats. Last I checked, he’s still Speaker.

....The fact that Boehner has the mere option of passing clean funding with the help of a lot of Democrats is rarely even mentioned. You can read article after article about this whole showdown and not be informed of that basic fact. Thus, the actual reason we’re stuck in this crisis — Boehner is delaying the moment where he does pass something with Dems for as long as possible — goes oddly unmentioned. Yet recent history suggests that Boehner himself knows this is how it will end, and that all of this drama won’t change the outcome.

Probably so. After all, the only thing that changed in the last election was control of the Senate, and Senate Republicans are willing to compromise. The House is probably going to have to go down that road eventually too.

But my guess is that they're going to shut down DHS for a while first. Boehner has made it pretty clear that he feels like he needs to demonstrate his conservative bona fides at the beginning of this new session of Congress, and that means holding out as long as he can. It's a waste of time, and it's going to hurt Republican efforts to work on other legislation, but that's life. Symbols are important, and Boehner needs to show whose side he's on. There's a good chance this will last a couple of weeks before it gets resolved.

This Is the Best Reason Why a Newspaper Has Ever Withheld a Source's Identity

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 11:19 AM EST

When a New York Times reporter approached a random woman about the improved conditions inside the bathrooms at the usually disgusting Port Authority Bus Terminal, the reporter probably did not anticipate the question would lead to fulfilling a profound lifelong goal. Alas, dreams delivered:

The brand new Port Authority, where it's always best to stay anonymous.

Rachel Maddow Slams "Ballistic" Bill O'Reilly Over Threats to Reporter

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 9:13 AM EST

Bill O'Reilly has a history of hurling insults and threats at his detractors. With the controversy over the reports from Mother Jones, CNN, and others that he embellished his reporting experience in the Falklands War, the Fox News host has added to this reputation by suggesting Mother Jones editor David Corn be placed in "the kill zone" and by telling a New York Times reporter she would face consequences if a story on the controversy did not please him.

"I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take that as a threat," O'Reilly told Times reporter Emily Steel.

During the "Debunktion Junction" segment on her show Tuesday night, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow slammed O'Reilly over his latest personal attacks and threats.

"Fox News has a bunch of folks like Mr. O'Reilly on their shows—part of why I call them 'Republican TV,'" Maddow said. "But they also have a lot of real reporters on staff who do real reporting all day long on real news...I'm sure they don't take kindly when their own reporters get threatened for trying to do their jobs. But it is hard to imagine what this is going to do to the work environment at Fox News channel for the Fox News channel's real reporters, and they do have them."

Watch below:

Is the Junk-Food Era Drawing to a Close?

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Not long ago, the great processed-food companies like Kraft and Kellogg's towered over the US food landscape like the high hat that adorned the head of Chef Boyardee, the iconic canned-spaghetti magnate whose empire is now owned by ConAgra.

But now, Big Food has fallen on hard times. Conagra, which owns Hunts, Reddi Whip, Ro-Tell, Swiss Miss, and Orville Redenbacher, along with Chef Boyardee, recently slashed its 2015 profit projections and sacked its CEO. Kraft—purveyor of Oscar Mayer deli meats, Jell-O, Maxwell House coffee, and Velveeta cheese—also recently shook up top management and reported sluggish sales in 2014. Cereal titan Kellogg's has seen its sales plunge 5.4 percent over the past year, Advertising Age reports.

There's a "mounting distrust of so-called Big Food, the large food companies and legacy brands on which millions of consumers have relied on for so long," said Campbell Soup's CEO.

What gives? Part of the problem is currency fluctuations. Having conquered the US market, Big Food for years has looked overseas for growth. Recently, a strong US dollar has cut into foreign profits, because a pricier dollar makes overseas sales worth less when they're converted to the US currency, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported.

Currencies rise and fall, but the real specter haunting the industry may be something less ephemeral than the dollar's gyrations. Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison—whose company makes V8 juice and Pepperidge Farm baked goods along with soup—recently publicly declared that there's a "mounting distrust of so-called Big Food, the large food companies and legacy brands on which millions of consumers have relied…for so long," reports Fortune's Phil Wahba, in an account from a conference at which Morrison spoke. Morrison also cited the "increasingly complex public dialog when it comes to food" as a drag on Campbell Soup's and its competitors' sales, Wahba reports.

In other words, Big Food successfully sold a vision of cooking as a necessary inconvenience, to be dispatched with as painlessly as possible—open a soup can for dinner, unleash a squirt of artificial cream onto a boxed cake for dessert—that's starting to lose its charm.

One reason is surely health. Over the past decade, there has been a bounty of research on the ill effects of highly processed food. And when Yale medical researchers David Katz and Samuel Meller surveyed the scientific dietary literature for a paper in 2013, they found that a "diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention."

Interestingly, Katz and Meller found that as long as you stick to the "minimally processed" bit, it doesn't much matter which diet you follow: low-fat, vegetarian, and Mediterranean have all shown good results. Even the meat-centered "paleo" approach does okay. The authors conclude the "aggregation of evidence" supports meat eating, as long as the "animal foods are themselves the products, directly or ultimately, of pure plant foods—the composition of animal flesh and milk is as much influenced by diet as we are." That's likely because cows fed on grass deliver meat and milk with a healthier fat profile than their industrially raised peers.

Meanwhile, as Big Food flounders, sales of fresh food grown by nearby farmers continues to grow at a pace that would make a Big Food exec salivate. A recent US Department of Agriculture report found that there are now 8,268 farmers markets nationwide—a jump of 180 percent since 2006. Then there are regional food hubs, which the USDA describes as "enterprises that aggregate locally sourced food to meet wholesale, retail, institutional, and even individual demand"—the kind of operations that can move fresh food from local farms to, say, grocery stores, so you don't have to show up at the exact right time at the farmers market to get your local collard greens. Food hubs, the USDA reports, have jumped in number by 280 percent since 2007.

Finally, there are schools—a site long dominated by Big Food, where little consumers learn eating habits before they emerge into the world as income-earning adults. According to the USDA, school districts with farm-to-school programs grew by more than 400 percent between 2007 and 2012.

For decades, "American cuisine" was an oxymoron, the punch line to a sad joke. Billions of dollars in profits have been made betting on the US appetite for processed junk. Those days may be drawing to an end.

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Christian Singer Who Sold His Song to "Fifty Shades of Grey": "I Thought It Was a Rom-Com"

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Remember your high school prom? Now imagine, for the slow dance, the class nerd—pale, big glasses, a little chubby—walked on stage and belted out the most exquisite Otis Redding cover you'd ever heard. That's what came to mind when I saw Paul Janeway, the lead singer of St. Paul & the Broken Bones, perform at the Fillmore in San Francisco over Valentine's Day weekend. Featuring Janeway's wrenching vocals plus sizzling guitar, horns, and rhythm, the tight and explosive seven-piece Broken Bones banded together in Birmingham, Alabama, and released their first EP in 2012. They've since appeared on Letterman and at Bonnaroo, and released a full album, Half the City, produced by the keyboardist from the Alabama Shakes.

Though his passionate tunes will surely inspire steamy encounters, Janeway's roots are pure: He learned to sing at his Pentecostal-leaning church. So it might come as a surprise that the band's song "Call Me" was included in Fifty Shades of Grey, the film based on E.L. James' erotic BDSM novel.

Decked out in a crisp navy suit, a red satin pocket square, and flashy gold shoes, Janeway charged through Redding numbers during his Fillmore set, as well as a dance-worthy cover of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" and a killer version of Paul McCartney and Wings' "Let Me Roll It." The Broken Bones' gospel-infused originals kept the audience swaying through the show, and delivered proof that classic soul lives on through more than just covers.

"I had no idea what it was. Then I saw a preview for it, and I was like, 'Oh shit. Oh no. What have I done?'"

I spoke with Janeway the morning after his latest San Francisco show.

Mother Jones: You've said: "My goal in life until I was about 18 years old was to be a preacher." What was your first reaction to learning that your song would be in Fifty Shades of Grey?

Paul Janeway: [Laughs.] All right, my first Fifty Shades of Grey question! When they presented the licensing opportunity, they presented it as: It's going to be a huge movie, they want to put a decent amount of the song in the movie in a nonsexual scene.

I knew it was a book, but I had no idea what it was. So I was like, sure, big movie, good exposure. I'll be in this romantic comedy. Which is what I thought it was: a romantic comedy. It's a good way to make money in the music business, you know. Then I saw a preview for it, and I was like, "Oh, shit. Oh, no. What have I done?"

To me it's kind of funny. I'm glad it's in a nonsexual scene to be honest with you, not for my sake but for my family's sake. I don't have any moral things about it. It's not like we're in the movie—it's just a song for a minute.

MJ: My friend had heard some of your songs but didn't know much about you. When we first walked in show, his first words were: "Wow, it's just a bunch of white dudes." Do you get that a lot?

PJ: Yeah, a little bit. It is interesting that people get kind of shocked by that, I guess. I don't ever really think about that because it's just music that we love. We're from Alabama, and if you look at the Muscle Shoals Swampers, that was just a bunch of white dudes. They wrote some of the best soul music ever written. I think if people don't know the musical history, I think they're like, "Oh?!"

MJ: I didn't realize you were so theatrical: You were humping the speakers at one point, throwing down the mic. Did that dramatic side start before you became a singer, or has music brought it out of you?

PJ: That's always been something I've been attracted to. I love Broadway musicals. Really for me, as St. Paul, it's an exaggeration of my personality put on to the max. It's just ridiculous. I don't typically climb on speakers in real life. It's an adventure within the show—like, okay, here's something to climb on. The first night [in San Francisco] I got on the really tall speaker and got really scared. I'm like, I'm not doin' that the second night!

In Dallas one time, it wasn't well-lit on the stage. I jumped in front of the horn mics and I couldn't see the stage or the monitor. So I tripped over the monitor and took out both horn mics, the trombone player broke his slide out. I thought I broke my ankle, but it was just really badly bruised.

MJ: You sing so much about love and affection: How do you get in the mood if your personal life is making you feel down or cynical?

PJ: I got married seven weeks ago. It's weird because I'm very happy, and some of the songs are about heartbreak. I'm not really heartbroken. When it's show time, when you have a song that's danceable, it's easy to sing about love and sex.

"'Try a Little Tenderness' is a monster of a song. I don't know why we have the guts to do it. It's sacred territory."

It's really the ones about heartbreak and sadness that are difficult to handle because I have to get to a place mentally during the song that's not really where I want to be. We have this song called "Broken Bones and Pocket Change": Sometimes I get really emotional, and I have to take a break, 20 seconds to be like, "Okay, we're done with that one." You want the song to have the same meaning it had when you sang it the first time. 

MJ: You really belt. How do you take care of your voice?

PJ: A lot of Coca-Cola. [Laughs]. That's not really good for you, but I do drink a lot of Coke. I don't drink alcohol; I don't smoke. I never have in my 31 years on the planet. I do vocal warm-ups. I use this spray called Entertainer's Secret. And sleep. The thing is, I can sleep 12 to 13 hours. It's pretty vital to the rejuvenation of the voice. You do it night in and night out, your voice has to recuperate, it's key. I think if I was a hard partier, I think it would be a lot tougher. But I'm not; I'm pretty lame.

MJ: I think I heard you say on stage that Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" was the best soul song of all times.

PJ: It's definitely one of the best. As a song live, you can't follow it. I think Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," and then a William Bell song, "I Forgot to Be Your Lover." Those three songs to me—it's kind of like picking your favorite kid though.

"Try a Little Tenderness" is an old song. But as far as Otis Redding's execution, it's one of the best executions ever. Live, it's a monster of a song. I don't know why we have the guts to do it. It's sacred territory. I think when we were starting out, we were too stupid to think about that. We just loved the song. We were like, we know this is a classic: If you can't measure yourself to that, you don't need to be doin' this. 

MJ: Let's talk about the art of the carefully selected pocket squares. Do you pick your own?

PJ: I do, I do. I've actually lost quite a few at this point. They end up in my book bag or somewhere else. There was a really great one, that was like lacy, almost like panties. It was pink. That was the best pocket square I've ever had, but I cannot find it. It was amazing.

I actually handle all that stuff myself. Those gold shoes are the only thing I like wearing—they are just flashy enough to make me feel good about doin' it.

MJ: What's the red pin you're always wearing?

PJ: It says Alabama. It's an Alabama football thing. It's my code way to stayin' real tied to the state of Alabama—a little piece of home.

We Have Some Good News For You About Marijuana

| Tue Feb. 24, 2015 4:26 PM EST

When comparing seven commonly used recreational drugs, marijuana clocks in as by far the least dangerous, nearly 114 times safer than the most dangerous drug concluded in a new study—alcohol.

This is according to research recently published in Scientific Reports, which examined the exposure risks of heroin, meth, alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy,  tobacco, and marijuana, by individuals. While previous studies have long suggested marijuana use poses a lesser mortality risk than alcohol—a point commonly cited in calls to increase legalization in more states—such a wide margin was not previously known.

In the new study, researchers also concluded that the deadly risks of alcohol have most likely been severely underestimated. Alcohol and tobacco (the fourth deadliest drug) are the only two substances in the study that are generally legal for adult use in the United States.

The findings come as more states appear to be coming around to the idea of marijuana legalization. Earlier this week, Alaska became the first red state to legalize pot, and Washington D.C. is preparing to do the same in just a few days. The recent passage of the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill marked a huge step towards ending the war on medical marijuana with the inclusion of an amendment preventing the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries.

Researchers behind the study said their results should encourage lawmakers to move away from the "current prohibition approach" under federal law, and opt for a more "strict regulatory approach" instead. The study also suggested a "risk management prioritization" that emphasizes a focus on alcohol and tobacco, rather than illicit drugs.

Everything You've Been Told About Healthy Eating Is Wrong, Except This

| Tue Feb. 24, 2015 3:59 PM EST

For several years now I've been following the controversy over whether the dietary guidelines that have developed over the the past 70 years might be all wrong. And I've become tentatively convinced that, in fact, they are wrong. For most people—not all!—salt isn't a big killer; cholesterol isn't harmful; and red meat and saturated fat are perfectly OK. Healthy, even. Sugar, on the other hand, really needs to be watched.

Before I go on, a great big caveat: I'm not even an educated amateur on this subject. I've read a fair amount about it, but I've never dived into it systematically. And the plain truth is that firm proof is hard to come by when it comes to diet. It's really, really hard to conduct the kinds of experiments that would give us concrete proof that one diet is better than another, and the studies that have been done almost all have defects of some kind.

In other words, what follows are some thoughts I've gathered over the years, not a crusade to convince you I'm right. And it's strictly about what's healthy to eat, not what's good for the planet. Take it for what it's worth.

Salt is perhaps the most personal subject to me. My father had a stroke when I was a teenager, and his doctor told him he needed to watch his salt intake. Ever since then, I've watched mine too. As it happens, this wasn't a big sacrifice: I don't eat a lot of prepared foods, which are usually loaded with salt, and I've never felt the need to heavily salt my food.

Nevertheless, last year my doctor told me she was worried about my sodium level. I misunderstood at first, and figured that I needed to make additional efforts to cut back. But no. My serum sodium level was too low. What's more, it turns out that most Americans consume a safe amount of sodium. The usual recommendation is to keep sodium intake below 2400 mg per day, but the bulk of the evidence suggests that twice this much is perfectly safe for people who don't suffer from hypertension. (And even the recommendations for people with hypertension might be more restrictive than they need to be.)

Then there's cholesterol. I guess I don't have to say much about that: the evidence is now so overwhelming that even the U.S. government's top nutrition panel announced a couple of weeks ago that dietary cholesterol was no longer a "nutrient of concern" in its latest guidelines. Go ahead and have an egg or three.

Finally, there's saturated fat. The same nutrition panel that decided cholesterol is OK didn't ease up its recommendations on saturated fat. But I'm increasingly skeptical of this too. Interestingly, Aaron Carroll is skeptical too:

As the guidelines have recommended cutting down on meat, especially red meat, this meant that many people began to increase their consumption of carbohydrates.

Decades later, it’s not hard to find evidence that this might have been a bad move. Many now believe that excessive carbohydrate consumption may be contributing to the obesity and diabetes epidemics. A Cochrane Review of all randomized controlled trials of reduced or modified dietary fat interventions found that replacing fat with carbohydrates does not protect even against cardiovascular problems, let alone death.

Interestingly, the new dietary recommendations may acknowledge this as well, dropping the recommendation to limit overall fat consumption in favor of a more refined recommendation to limit only saturated fat. Even that recommendation is hotly contested by some, though.

....It is frustrating enough when we over-read the results of epidemiologic studies and make the mistake of believing that correlation is the same as causation. It’s maddening, however, when we ignore the results of randomized controlled trials, which can prove causation, to continue down the wrong path. In reviewing the literature, it’s hard to come away with a sense that anyone knows for sure what diet should be recommended to all Americans.

Randomized trials are the gold standard of dietary studies, but as I said above, they're really, really hard to conduct properly. You have to find a stable population of people. You have to pick half of them randomly and get them to change their diets. You have to trust them to actually do it. You have to follow them for years, not months. Virtually no trial can ever truly meet this standard.

Nonetheless, as Carroll says, the randomized trials we do have suggest that red meat and saturated fat have little effect on cardiovascular health—and might actually have a positive effect on cancer outcomes.

At the same time, increased consumption of sugars and carbohydrates might be actively bad for us. At the very least they contribute to obesity and diabetes, and there's some evidence that they aren't so great for your heart either.

So where does this leave us? As Carroll says, the literature as a whole suggests that we simply don't know. We've been convinced of a lot of things for a long time, and it's turned out that a lot of what we believed was never really backed by solid evidence in the first place. So now the dietary ship is turning. Slowly, but it's turning.

For myself, I guess I continue to believe that the key is moderation. Try to eat more fresh food and fewer packaged meals. That said, there's nothing wrong with salt or saturated fat or cholesterol or sugar. None of them need to be cut down to minuscule levels. You don't need to limit yourself to two grams of salt or eliminate red meat from your diet. You can eat eggs and butter and steak if you want to. You should watch your sugar and carb intake, but only because so many of us consume truly huge quantities of both. In the end, all of these things are OK. They simply need to be consumed in moderation.1

Can I prove that? Nope. But it's what I believe these days.

1Needless to say, none of this applies to people with specific conditions that require dietary restrictions. Listen to your doctor!

The Senate Just Failed to Override Obama's Keystone XL Veto

| Tue Feb. 24, 2015 3:19 PM EST

Update—Weds, March 4, 2:50pm ET: The Senate vote to override President Obama's veto has failed, falling four votes shy.

We knew this was coming: About a month after the Senate narrowly passed a bill to force President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, the president vetoed the bill Tuesday afternoon, hours after the White House said he would do so "without drama or fanfare or delay."

From the AP:

The contentious legislation arrived at the White House on Tuesday morning from Capitol Hill, where Republicans pushed the bill quickly through both chambers in their first burst of activity since taking full control of Congress....

The move sends the politically charged issue back to Congress, where Republicans have yet to show they can muster the two-thirds majority in both chambers needed to override Obama's veto. Sen. John Hoeven, the bill's chief GOP sponsor, said Republicans are about four votes short in the Senate and need about 11 more in the House.

The veto, which the White House has long promised on this or any other Keystone-approval bill, is the first one in the last five years. It essentially blocks what Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) have called a top priority of this congressional session.

Obama's beef with the bill isn't necessarily with the pipeline itself. Instead, the president wants the approval process to go through the State Department, which normally has jurisdiction over international infrastructure projects.

In his memo to the Senate, the president said: "Because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest—including our security, safety, and environment—it has earned my veto."

The administration still hasn't indicated whether it will approve the pipeline, even though there aren't any more bureaucratic hurdles to clear. Early this month, the window for government agencies to weigh in closed. The most significant comment came from the Environmental Protection Agency, which said that if oil prices go much lower than they are, moving oil from Canada by truck or train could become too expensive. So a green-light for the pipeline would lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions than if it were not approved.

The final question now is whether the president agrees.

This post has been updated.